NEW YORK — The floodgates are due to break open Tuesday on the fictional town of Henderson, USA, but regular viewers of NBC's "Search for Tomorrow" can take heart that the 34-year-old town is being devastated in order to save TV's oldest daytime drama.
The flood, which viewers have seen coming in recent days, will result in only one fatality, but the lives and life styles of the survivors will be dramatically altered, and so will all of the soap's sets, and even its familiar theme music. All of this at a cost to sponsor Procter & Gamble of as much as $1 million over the next year in its effort to rescue the soap from drowning at the bottom of daytime drama's audience ratings.
"At last there is a real ray of hope that there will be a tomorrow--we've been searching long enough," said David Forsyth, who plays Henderson Herald reporter Hogan McCleary.
Forsyth was one of several of the soap's popular actors who suffered colds and who were even hospitalized briefly as a result of last week's taping of the simulated flood to be seen Tuesday. The actors, including Mary Stuart, the reigning "queen of soaps," endured 150 gallons of "rain" water and a huge pool of 4-feet-deep water set up for the torrential scenes created in a mid-Manhattan studio.
"Nobody minded," Forsyth said. In fact, he said that there has been a "180-degree turnaround" for the better in cast and crew morale, which he termed "dismal at best," until now.
"The stories weren't going anywhere . . . the characters were scattered all over the place . . . there was too little attention being paid to the show's history and continuity--and there was barely any romance left," continued Forsyth, whose on-screen romance with Liza Sentell (played by Louan Gideon) was the last spark of romance in Henderson before the flood. "As a result, the public felt cheated," added the actor, who said this was evident from disgruntled fan mail and from promotional forays he made out among the public.
It was this state of affairs, brought about, in the view of Forsyth and others on the set, by the comings and goings of five executive producers and several different writers over the past 2 1/2 years that resulted in increasingly low audience ratings. This, together with the fact that "Search" is one of the few soaps that has not expanded from a half hour to one hour.
It was in such a climate that John Whitesell was hired last November as executive producer of the show. In just five years, Whitesell, 29, has moved from production assistant to director to producer, previously on "Texas" and "Guiding Light."
"I was brought in with a mandate to make the show work, to keep our loyal audience and to find a newer, younger audience," said Whitesell, who also directs some segments of the soap. "To do this I felt I had to literally wash away the remnants of the past and build from scratch.
"But rather than a bloodbath of characters, we decided to just try to bring all the characters together under one roof," he continued, noting that the single building to survive the Henderson flood will be a hilltop apartment house, into which the various characters will move in coming weeks, as one new apartment/set after another is built.
Whitesell said the "killing off" of Andrew Ryder (played by Adam Storke) in the flood was simply unavoidable "because his character had no potential relationship and nowhere left to go in the story."
Whitesell also said that some character "gaps" will be filled in coming weeks and months, with at least four major new and continuing characters, including "an older, mysterious character," a possible love interest for Mary Stuart's character Jo Tourneur.
Would it have been easier to build an entirely new show, especially at Whitesell's estimated overhaul cost of $500,000 for the first six months, and another $500,000 for the next six months?
"It takes a long time to build a new show," said Whitesell. "We are already identifiable and known by virtually every (daytime TV) viewer. What we are trying to do here is revitalize the show, rather than killing it."